The lost art of taking a punt

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In the supermarket wine aisle recently, I was distracted by the sight of a young woman next to me, repeatedly leaning in to the shelves to take close-up pictures of individual wine bottles with the camera on her phone.

What on earth was she up to?  I wondered. Was she some marketing spy sent in to snoop on exciting new varieties being stocked by individual supermarkets? “This one’s a 4.1” she suddenly announced – and as I quickly scanned the area around us to identify her companion, I spotted a young man, a few shelves further down, carrying out similar camera-phone scrutiny of the wine.   “There are a couple of 4.2s over here” he announced, in the excited tones of an archaeologist unearthing a mythical treasure whose existence had been barely believed.

It’s rude to stare, and I was finding it very hard not to, so I turned my back and moved over to concentrate on the shelves on the opposite side of the aisle.  But as I spotted a favourite Australian Chardonnay at 25% off and happily picked up two bottles to put in my basket, I could still hear them calling out numbers to each other and my curiosity got the better of me.  This is the Lake District, I reminded myself, where strangers talk to each other – not London, where they don’t.

Still, even in the Lake District, to simply demand “What the hell are you doing?” would be a bit rude.  And thankfully I’d already started to work out what they might be doing.  So I plucked up my courage and wandered over to her. “Excuse me asking, but is that some kind of app you’re using, that gives you information about the wine?”

“Yes”, she responded, turning to me with a smile.  “It’s brilliant.  It’s called Vivino, and you just scan the label and it tells you all about the wine’s flavour, and gives you a rating out of 5 so you know if it’s any good”.  And she showed me, on her phone, the recent wines she had scanned, ranked according to the ratings given by the app.  “Recommend” she finished – that single word somehow perfectly encapsulating the ways in which the digital world has changed not just our daily habits but even our means of communicating, so that even the sentence “I’d thoroughly recommend it” is now considered too long-winded, when a single word will do.

I thanked her and wandered off, leaving her and her partner to continue scanning labels and comparing notes.  But it struck me as a rather clinical and rather joyless way to choose wine – not to mention time-consuming.   What happened to either sticking with one’s favourites – as I have a tendency to do – or taking a punt on something different and potentially discovering something delightful?

I can’t help wondering, sometimes, whether there is a link between our increasing reliance on reviews and recommendations, and the rise of the nanny state.  When we live in a world in which almost every element of our lives is risk-managed and controlled to avoid unexpected surprises, is it any wonder that we turn to review websites and apps to guide our decisions on where to live, what car to drive, where to go on holiday, where to eat and now even what to drink?  Maybe the risk of choosing the wrong holiday destination, or the wrong car, or even the wrong wine, is a risk that some people are simply not willing to take.

On the other hand, maybe I’m reading too much into this and Vivino is simply bringing a modern take to the well-established market of wine buyers’ guides. My brother has for many years been a French wine enthusiast and will spend hours poring over websites and magazines looking at reviews and recommendations.  Is this young couple’s desire to know more about the wines they are about to buy, really any different from that of my brother?

In the interest of research, I downloaded the app onto my phone and pointed it at a bottle of Chilean merlot in my kitchen.  The app immediately returned a rating (3.3, about average apparently) and told me the average price I should expect to pay for it (£7.27, which made me very happy as I’d bought it on special at £6).  It rated the wine’s taste characteristics based on 22 user reviews, and showed a selection of user review comments, most of which were very positive. My wine, sadly, didn’t fare very well in the world rankings – it was ranked in the bottom 28% of wines in the world, though at £6 a bottle I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be top-rated.  But I laughed out loud as I scrolled further down and read the line “All Merlot sales took a fairly sizeable hit when the 2004 movie Sideways was released”.

It seems the value we accord other people’s opinions goes far beyond a reliance on review websites and apps, and no matter how good a wine may be, it is no match for a character in a high-grossing movie shouting the line “I am not drinking any f***ing merlot!”   Which is ridiculous, really, as individual tastes and different palates mean the only true way to find out if you’ll enjoy a wine, is to taste it.    Personally, I love Chilean merlot, and I certainly don’t need an app – or a movie – to validate my choice.  But for those who do, there’s always Vivino.






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